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St. George Gallery and Ethiopian Silver Jewelry

 

As part of the overall mission of St. George Gallery, the Gallery has promoted the design and use of traditional Ethiopian style jewelry since it opened in 1990.  For the last 10 years, the Gallery has had a special relationship a jewelry designer and works extremely closely with the designer on the design concepts and ideas for necklaces, earring and bracelets.  Since the inception of this special relationship, the Gallery has concentrated on three approaches to the production and promotion of Ethiopian jewelry:  first, and where feasible and attractive to modern tastes, the repair and rehabilitation of traditional Ethiopian silver jewelry;  second, the production of modern jewelry using modern-day Ethiopian silver pieces and semi-precious gems and African beads; and, third, and by far the largest category, the use of antique Ethiopian silver pieces in more contemporary jewelry designs.

Designer Jewelry

 

In addition to utilizing old silver in contemporary pieces, the Gallery also emphasizes quality in production and materials.  Imported Sterling silver is used for necklace catches and earring hooks and imported silk thread, leather, and multi-filament coated wired are used to string necklaces.

 

Although the Gallery sells framed jewelry, the bulk of the jewelry on display is meant to be worn and for this reason, all old silver is cleaned and sterilized.  After decades of use, most Ethiopian silver is impregnated with grime, dirt and body oils and is extremely unpleasant to handle or to wear.

 

Although some of the natural patina is lost through the cleaning process and the silver sometimes loses its “antique” look, the Gallery believes that its jewelry must not only be attractive and of the highest quality but it should be comfortable to wear.

 

Antique Ethiopian silver jewelry has its roots in both African and Middle East silver jewelry and these design elements are particularly prevalent in silver jewelry from the lowlands.


Silver prices have increased dramatically in the last few years.  Because of this price increase Maria Theresa Thalers (dollars), the traditional source of silver for African and Ethiopian silver jewelry, have become more difficult to obtain.  Now more than ever, old silver crosses, bracelets and jewelry are being melted down to make new silver jewelry. As long as silver prices remain high this trend is likely to continue and St George Gallery believes that it is important to preserve this important element of Ethiopian culture through imaginative use of these old silver pieces.

 

Please see our separate note on Ethiopian Silver

 

 “The collection of jewelry, personally I never imagined that the trading beads, amber or old silver collection could be combined and made into wonderful contemporary jewelry.” -  The Ethiopian Herald

 

 

 

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A Word about Ethiopian Silver

 

Traditionally most Ethiopian silver jewelry and silver crosses were made from Austrian Maria Theresa Thalers (Dollars).  Thalers were the almost universal currency in the Horn of Africa in the 19th century and even today they are still melted down by Ethiopian jewelers to make modern silver pieces.

 

Silver CoinMaria Theresa Thalers had a guaranteed silver content of 833.3 parts pure silver per 1000.  Sterling silver, the silver standard in England since the 15th century, has about 10% more pure silver at 925 parts pure silver per 1000.  Sterling silver is sometimes marked with the maker’s mark (“Hallmark”), with “925”, or with the word “Sterling”. Pure silver or “fine” silver, which is about 999 parts pure silver per 1000, is usually only used in enamel work and very fine filigree work.

 

Maria Theresa Thalers were first issued in 1778 and then re-issued in 1780. All Thalers issued after 1780 are dated 1780 regardless of when or where they were struck.  Maria Theresa Thalers were issued in Vienna, Prague, Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome, London, Paris, Brussels, and Bombay. Authorities estimate that 400 to 800 million Thalers were issued between 1778 and 2002, when the Austrain mint issued 14,924 “new” coins.

Silver Coin Back

 


Diameter

39.5 mm

Silver Content

833.3 / 1000

Copper Content

166.6 / 1000

Total Weight

28.0668 grams

Fine Weight (Actual Silver Content)

23.3890 grams

Fine Weight (Actual Silver Content)

0.7520 ounces

Maria Theresa Thalers have a special place in Ethiopian history as the Italian Government issued about 40 million Thalers to finance Italy’s imperlist ambitions in Ethiopia in the 1930s.

Although there are silver standards in Europe and many other parts of the world, there is no silver standard in Ethiopia and the silver content of jewelry and silver crosses can vary.  As most silver pieces were made from Maria Theresa Thalers or from melted down old pieces of silver, the pure silver content is unlikely to be above 833 parts per 1000 and could be less.  The term “Ethiopian Silver” refers to silver of unknown silver content and consequently St. George Gallery cannot guarantee the silver content of Ethiopian Silver jewelry or Ethiopia Silver crosses.

For additional information on Maria Theresa Thalers see A Silver Legend: The Story of Maria Theresa Thaler by Clara Semple